JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) — When Melvin Hutton first set foot into the cemetery, he was shocked by what he found.
About a dozen trees had fallen to the ground — likely the result of ice storms and high winds that blew through in the past few years.
Graves were sunken in, and markers noting the names of many of the dead had been removed from the ground and carelessly tossed into a corner of the property by whoever last mowed the cemetery.
And judging by the height of the grass and weeds, that last mowing had been several years ago.
That was on June 30.
In the past few months, Hutton has spent a few hours a day working at the site of the old Joplin Humane Society pet cemetery, located behind the Veterans of Foreign Wars post on Upland Road. Now, the eternal resting places of Nanny, Jiggs, JoJo, Fancy and scores of other beloved companions are visible once again.
"Animals are like kids. They're part of your family," Hutton said. "I can't believe that somebody with a pet buried here would be OK with the fact that it has been left untouched."
The 65-year-old Hutton said that after the death of his wife, Janice, on Feb. 22, he needed something on which to focus. A retired school administrator from Lee's Summit who moved to Joplin five years ago, he said he thought restoring the pet cemetery would be a "little project" he could take on, though "little" didn't turn out to be the case.
"When I first walked in there ... I saw it was going to be a bigger job than I thought it would be," he said.
Hutton said a man from Lamar drove to Joplin and cut up the downed trees for firewood. Stumps were burned, grass was given a much-needed trim, and dirt was brought in to fill in sunken graves.
Each day, he is joined by Abby and Molly, his two rambunctious black pugs. He usually keeps them tied together, often with a plastic bucket dragging behind them as a way for him to keep track of their whereabouts.
"Everywhere I go, they go," Hutton said.
Richard Copeland, president of the Humane Society's board of directors, said records show that the north side of the cemetery was established in 1949. The first pet buried there was a fox terrier named Lucky who belonged to a Mrs. Garley, according to the plat book. In 1973, the cemetery was expanded to its current size.
Records show that the last animal officially buried there was on Dec. 10, 1979, though people have continued to use the cemetery.
"I buried my own dog out there four years ago," Copeland said.
He said Humane Society volunteers held a work day at the cemetery about five years ago, but it had since fallen into disrepair once again. Hutton's efforts to restore it, he said, have been commendable.
"He's done a tremendous job," said Copeland. "He's done it all on his own and put in a lot of hours out there. We can't thank him enough."
Karen Aquino, executive director of the Humane Society, said the shelter recently sent Hutton a letter thanking him for all of his work and offered to reimburse him for his expenses.
"People come forward to help us all the time, but this gentleman has gone over and above," she said. "He spent a good portion of his summer at the cemetery. It's amazing."
Aquino said there are no plans to sell the property.
"It'll just be a permanent memorial to those animals that are interred there," she said.
She said no more pets are to be buried there, as she thinks the property is "maxed out" of spaces that can be excavated.
Some local pet owners who know about it may not be ready to give up on the cemetery, however.
"I was out here working the other day, and a man who must live nearby walked over and buried a parrot," Hutton said.
Hutton said he'll keep up the restoration efforts at the old pet cemetery this fall as long as the weather holds out, then will resume in the spring.
"I'll probably finish next summer," he said. "It's been a nice way to kill time."
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